An ancient jawbone previously thought to belong to a Neanderthal may force a rethinking of modern human history in Europe.
A new examination of the broken mandible reveals that it bears no resemblance to other Neanderthal remains. It could instead belong to a Homo sapiens – and, given its age range of 45,000 to 66,000 years, it could be the oldest known piece of our species’ anatomy on the European continent.
According to the news of Science Alert, the bone itself was discovered in 1887 in the Spanish town of Banyoles, for which it is named. Scientists have studied it extensively since then, dating it to the Late Pleistocene, when the region that is now Europe was primarily populated by Neanderthals. Scientists came to the conclusion that Banyoles actually belonged to a Neanderthal as a result of this.
According to palaeoanthropologist Brian Keeling of Binghamton University in the US, “The mandible has been studied throughout the past century and was long considered to be a Neandertal based on its age and location, and the fact that it lacks one of the diagnostic features of Homo sapiens.”
Keeling and his colleagues used a technique called three dimensional geometric morphometric analysis to conduct a thorough analysis of the bone. This non-invasive procedure entails meticulously examining a bone’s morphology, charting its properties, and contrasting them with other remains. High resolution 3D scans were taken, and these were used to recreate the missing sections in addition to studying the bone. Then they made comparisons between Banyoles and modern human and Neanderthal mandibles.
“Our results found something quite surprising, Banyoles shared no distinct Neanderthal traits and did not overlap with Neanderthals in its overall shape.” ” Keeling says.
However, because a chin is thought to be a distinguishing feature of Homo sapiens in comparison to other archaic humans, this presented a problem. Furthermore, Banyoles shared characteristics with ancient hominins that lived in Europe hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The bone was compared by the researchers to one from the early modern human, whose bones were discovered in Romania between 37,000 and 42,000 years ago. A single Neanderthal ancestor who lived four to six generations ago was identified by DNA research in that jawbone, which likely explains its diverse traits.
The scientists came to the conclusion that Banyoles’ peculiar shape is unlikely to be due to the individual being a hybrid because it lacks Neanderthal traits.
When compared to earlier Homo sapiens bones from Africa, these individuals had less prominent chins than we do now. There are so two options. Either Banyoles was a member of a previously undiscovered subgroup of Homo sapiens that lived alongside Neanderthals in Late Pleistocene Europe. Or it was a cross between this unidentified population of Homo sapiens and an undiscovered early human.
There is only one thing for certain: Banyoles was not a Neanderthal.
According to the researchers, there is only one option to solve the riddle: try to extract some DNA from the bone or one of the teeth and sequence it.
“If Banyoles is really a member of our species, this prehistoric human would represent the earliest Homo sapiens ever documented in Europe,” he said.